The View From Here Interview:
Before I Die by Jenny Downham, edited by David Fickling and published by David Fickling Books, won the 2008 Branford Boase Award, which celebrates an outstanding debut novel for children over seven, and highlights the importance of the editor in nurturing new authors.
In Part One of the interview we discuss its research, writing and publication. In Part Two on Friday, Jenny shares her experience of winning prizes, an inspiring method of overcoming writer’s block, her recommended reading for young adults/ authors and her ten top tips which writers of all genres can use.
Jenny, let’s start with Before I Die. How did you go about creating the character of Tess?
I used to be an actor and I use a lot of acting techniques to write. I kept notebooks for each character, researching them as if I was going to play them on stage – what they liked to eat, what their hopes and fears were. It didn’t all get in the book, but it helped me to know who they were.
I kept a diary for Tess whilst I was writing, every morning I started my day by writing the previous day’s entry. Tess read the paper and listened to the news. She went for walks. I began to see things through her eyes quite a lot because I knew I’d have to write her diary later.
Regarding your research, I've read that you didn't work directly with ill teenagers or families. Why was that a conscious decision?
If I’d started interviewing terminally ill people, I think I would’ve felt compelled to honour their stories absolutely, and the point I wanted to make is that Tessa can be all of us – looking at life with absolute concentration because she knows better than most that it won’t last. Two nurses helped me with medical detail over many months. One of them was a palliative care nurse who worked with terminally ill teens. It felt really important not to get too embroiled in the medical stuff though. I wanted it to be accurate, but it was never supposed to be a medical or hospital-based story.
How and why did you decide to use the page layout and spacing that you did at the end of the novel?
Since Tess is narrating her own death, I needed a way of showing her drifting in and out of consciousness, leaving the reader behind, as she must leave her family. I wanted it to read like a poem, but I also knew it had to have a narrative engine behind it. So there are childhood memories, bodily sensations, her family talking to her (hearing is the last sense we lose), her brother’s terror, her own panic, her fantasies about the future her family will have without her, etc. I also wanted to show time passing and her physically weakening. The page breaks, punctuation and spacing were really important to me, and my editors let me be entirely prescriptive, which was wonderful.
How did you write the ending? All in one go - was it written last - or did you write the end before the middle sections? (I heard an author once say, she finished her novel holed up in a holiday flat in Brighton with nothing but a bottle of sherry, because she was so driven to write the ending she couldn't leave the flat.)
I wrote the book in narrative order and wrote the end last. I decided to write through the night. I’d never done this before, so it felt fruitful in its originality at least. I had the house to myself. I lit candles, turned off lights and tried to summon death.
I wrote for hours, until the sun came up. I wrote from every angle – others watching Tessa die, inside her head, dark tunnels, bright lights… I had to get rid of all the clichés by writing through them and I had to get rid of the critic (who often sits on my shoulder). In the morning, I had 22,000 words and my arms ached, but I knew the end was in there somewhere.
I opened all the curtains and because I’d told friends what I was planning, I got lots of supportive phone calls and then went out for breakfast. I didn’t look at the words for two weeks, which really allowed time for reflection. When I read through them again, I knew what to do.
How did you feel doing it and on completion - drained, exhilarated, did you cry?
Lots of people ask me if I cried when I was writing the book, and I didn’t. I often felt a low-level sadness as I tried to get into Tessa’s head though. I’d be walking to the park and thinking, this might be her last autumn day, or sitting in a café and thinking, this might be her last hot chocolate. In one way it was very celebratory - everything was special when it was filtered through her eyes - but it was also very sad.
The hardest thing was handing the work to the publisher after it was finished. I’d been inhabiting Tessa’s head for over two years and suddenly she was gone.
How did you go about publication? Experience of rejection? Editing? Choosing an agent?
Before I Die isn’t my first novel. My first novel is in a drawer in my bedroom and took three and a half years to write. When I finished it I sent it out to agents and publishers all over the UK. A lot of them liked it and I met a few of them, but none of them wanted to sign me up. I began to realise that first books are often where writers learn their craft and that my novel would need some re-writing. Since I had begun ‘Before I Die,’ I was reluctant to go back (to that first novel).
I particularly liked one of the agents I met - Catherine Clarke of Felicity Bryan Agency. She seemed sensitive to what I was trying to do and she thought ‘Before I Die’ sounded like a powerful story. We agreed to keep in touch and I sent her the first 20,000 words in mid- 2006. She was extremely encouraging. The first 40,000 were finished in October and 60,000 by December. At this stage I signed a contract with her and by March 2007 the book was finished. She had a hunch that David Fickling would like it (he’s a small independent publisher based in Oxford who works under the umbrella of Random House ). She showed it to him and he made a pre-emptive offer within days. Within less than 24 hours of DFB offer, the book had sold to the Netherlands. It sold in a further ten languages within two weeks.
Before I Die by Jenny Downham, edited by David Fickling and published by David Fickling Books, is the second Branford Boase Award in a row, for David Fickling, as A Swift Pure Cry by Siobhan Dowd took the prize last year.
On the ‘Before I Die” Blog it explains why they were so keen to publish her so quickly. “Partly and very plainly because I don't think the public should be kept waiting a single second longer than necessary to read this book. And partly to show we can. Nowadays books sometimes have to wait an inordinately long time to get published. Often a book taken on by an editor is not published for one, two, three years... I have always revered to the nimble publishing of legends of yore like Victor Gollancz who could receive a manuscript in August and have it in the shops by Christmas. A small, personal imprint like DFB can be nimble and quick, SHOULD be nimble and quick. Especially with literary gold dust in its hands.”
David Fickling told The View From Here, "I wanted to work with Jenny because she writes like an angel, with enormous perspicuity and accuracy about human beings!”
Part Two will follow on Friday. Jenny shares her experience of winning prizes, an inspiring method of overcoming writer’s block, her recommended reading for young adults/ authors and her ten top tips which writers of all genres can use.
Author image courtesy of Rolf Marriott, award image from the Branford Boase press.
For Part 2 of this interview click here.
For the printed edition of this interview at TVFH go here.